News Services, 919/515-3470
Dictionary to Save Vietnamese Writing, Unlock Vietnam’s
Balaban at a temple gate in Hanoi.
A collection of sexy poems in a nearly extinct ancient
system of Vietnamese writing has led to the production
of a scholarly dictionary that will save that system
professor of English and poet in residence at North
Carolina State University, has helped publish
the first dictionary of Nôm, the Chinese-like
script that Vietnamese used for 1,000 years to record
their own language and their vast heritage of poetry,
history, medicine, and religion. Today, that entire
literary culture is about to become extinct. Out of
80 million Vietnamese, less than 100 scholars worldwide
can do in-depth work with Nôm.
dictionary, titled Giup Doc Nôm
va Han Viet, is being published by the Vietnamese Nôm
Preservation Foundation, a non-profit organization
started by Balaban to preserve Vietnamese literature
written in Nôm.
was unveiled at the 2004 International Nôm Conference, which was held Nov. 12-14 in
Hanoi, Vietnam. The conference was sponsored by Balaban’s
foundation, the Institute of Han-Nôm Studies
and the Institute of Chinese & Vietnamese Old Scripts.
for the dictionary came from Balaban’s
critically acclaimed book of translated poetry called
Spring Essence: The Poetry of Ho Xuan Huong, a collection
of semi-erotic verses written in Nôm. Despite
its 1,000-year use, Nôm had never been printed
except by woodblock until the publication of Spring
Essence in 2000, which marked the first time Nôm
had been printed on a printing press. The book contained
50 poems printed in their Nôm originals and in
Balaban’s translations, a feat noted in President
Clinton’s State Dinner in Vietnam in 2000.
Spring Essence came out, Vietnamese were stunned
to see the script,” Balaban says. “People
were stunned again when President Clinton mentioned
the book at his State Dinner Speech in Hanoi. When
the book took off, I realized that we had a calling
to preserve the whole literary tradition of Nôm.”
as the first printing of Nôm in
Spring Essence was, the book involved only 1,000 characters.
The new dictionary contains 16,000 characters.
project involved the efforts of linguists and information
technology experts from the United
States, Europe and Vietnam. For two years, the Nôm
Foundation’s Hanoi office worked on the digitization
and electronic “font-carving” of Nôm
characters in order to print the dictionary in true
The publication of the dictionary and the Internet
release of its font repertoire will change the way
Vietnamese can access their cultural heritage and open
that heritage to the rest of the world, Balaban says.
“The generation that used this script in a familiar
way is long gone,” Balaban says. “We estimate
that there are less than 100 people worldwide who can
recognize and work with this script that represents
centuries of culture. To think of having all the history
and literature lost forever is unimaginable.”
a full description of the dictionary project and
International Nôm Conference, visit the Web.